A FEW years ago, I read a story in a magazine that completely changed the way I looked at the sport of surfing.
Beforehand, I’d always been dimly aware that I felt better in myself after a surf – more relaxed, more contented, more at peace with the world – but I’d simply put all these things down to the release of endorphins that accompanies any form of exercise. After reading this game-changing article, however, written by an American father of one called Paul Solotaroff, I started to wonder if perhaps the sport of kings might – as he suggested – have certain mental health benefits that other activities didn’t.
Solotaroff’s story was really the story of his son Luke – a little boy suffering from an acute form of autism known as Fragile X. Late to crawl and even later to walk and talk, by the time he reached the age of seven he was so withdrawn all he wanted to do was sit in his bedroom with the blinds down, watching the same few Elmo videos over and over again. Any attempts to coax him out would be met with violent tantrums.
Solotaroff described Luke’s condition as being a sort of extreme sensory overload: “Picture having to live in a video arcade with the volume and wattage up full, where everyone around you is racing past, speaking Mandarin at the top of their lungs. Your shirt feels like Brillo, your shoes like cement, and the breeze on your skin like the thwack of a soaking towel that’s been left to chill in the fridge. That, in a nutshell, is my little boy.”
One night, exhausted after the ordeal of putting Luke to bed, Solotaroff flopped onto the sofa, turned on the TV and happened to catch champion longboard surfer Izzy Paskowitz talking about how he had noticed a change for the better in his severely autistic young son after taking him surfing one day. Inspired, Solotaroff drove Luke to the nearest waves – in chilly New Jersey – and got a local surf instructor, Elliot Zuckerman, to take him into the water.
The results, said Solotaroff, were astonishing. While riding his first wave with Zuckerman, Luke’s expression changed from “stricken” into “a grin so big I see spray go into his mouth.” Luke insisted on staying in the water for another hour, even though he was so cold his lips had turned blue, and afterwards had changed from surly and monosyllabic to a boy “positively thrilled with himself.” In 2000, Paskowitz set up a charity called Surfers Healing, offering surfing lessons to autistic kids; and in 2010 a similar organisation, The Wave Project, was formed in the UK, with a remit to improve the “emotional wellbeing” of young people with a broader range of problems, referred by psychiatrists, psychotherapists, counsellors and youth workers.
And now, following successful trials in Cornwall and Devon, The Wave Project is about to have its first pilot scheme in Scotland, in association with Coast to Coast surf school, based in Dunbar. The project starts on 22 April and will continue for six weeks, with 20 young people taking part. In addition to a C2C instructor leading the classes, each trainee surfer will have a volunteer with them, meaning they get one-to-one attention at all times.
“That has the advantage that the kids can go at their own pace a bit more,” says Sam Christopherson, head instructor at C2C, “and it gives the kids and volunteers a chance to really bond.”
Jamie Marshall, Wave Project’s Scottish programme co-ordinator, is aware some people will view the idea of “surf healing” with a degree of cynicism, but he stresses that he and his colleagues go out of their way to be as scientific as possible when assessing the impact of what they’re doing.
“We’re very results based,” he says. “We use the Stirling Children’s Wellbeing Scale to assess the benefits and the boost in confidence that the young people experience, and we are also heavily directed by the feedback we get from the young people themselves, their parents and their teachers or social workers.
“All the feedback’s been very positive, especially the boosting of confidence, which is something I think a lot of people take for granted. I don’t think it hurts that surfing is perceived to be quite cool – people can go back to school and tell their friends about it.”